By Cliff Rold
Some find it sad when old champions fall to the hands of time and younger men. It can be. It can also be fitting. The phrase “going out on their shield” carries special meaning. The fighters willing to do that earn a special place in the hearts of the masses.
In his last two contests, former 118 and 122 lb. champion Rafael Marquez went out on his shield. The fighting spirit remained. The fighting ability had waned too much. Efrain Esquivias knocked out the 38-year old Marquez in the ninth round on September 7, 2013. Eighteen years before, insanely matched with a former champion in his pro debut, he was stopped in eight.
He came out the way he came in, a warrior through and through, fighting until the fight was beaten out of him.
Some might call it sad.
But there is honor in a career, and even an exit, like Marquez’s. He pondered retirement in the ring after the Esquivias fight. On September 20, it was reported by Salvador Rodriguez of ESPN Deportes that Marquez made the official announcement. Assuming this retirement holds and he is now at the end, it was for him a fitting conclusion.
With Marquez clearly past that inevitable point of no return, it is an honor for those who observed his exciting career to ask:
How good was Rafael Marquez, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Born: March 25, 1975
Height: 5’5 ½
Hailed From: Mexico City, Mexico
Turned Professional: September 14, 1995 (KO by 8 Victor Rabanales)
Record: 41-9, 37 KO, 7 KOBY (to date)
Record in Major Title Fights: 9-4, 7 KO, 2 KOBY
Titles: IBF Bantamweight (2003-07, 7 Defenses); Lineal World Jr. Featherweight/WBC Super Bantamweight (2007)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 1 (Israel Vazquez RTD7, TKO3)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 1
(Israel Vazquez TKO by 6, L12)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 4 (Mark Johnson SD10, TKO8; Tim Austin TKO8; Mauricio Pastrana UD12, TKO8; Eric Aiken KO1)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in Defeat: 4 (Victor Rabanales KO by 8; Juan Manuel Lopez RTD8; Toshiaki Nishioka L12; Cristian Mijares TKO by 9)
After losing three of his first 24 fight inside the distance, Marquez won seven in a row with six knockouts to earn a crack at a man then largely seen as the world’s best at 118 lbs., 1992 US Olympian Tim Austin. In a hard-hitting chess match, Marquez overcame some early adversity to stop Austin in the eighth for the IBF Bantamweight belt in February 2003. Seven defenses would follow, five of them by knockout, before Marquez moved up to 122 lbs. in 2007 to challenge the lineal and WBC champion Israel Vazquez.
Coming off the floor in round three, Marquez otherwise controlled the intense action. A severely broken nose forced Vazquez to retire in the corner and Marquez had his second world title. It would be the last major title fight he ever won.
Marquez would lose the title back to Vazquez in his first defense, a sensational battle bettered the following year as Marquez fell just short of recapturing the crown in 2008. While no ‘awards category’ exists for the honor, his fights with Vazquez stand out as one of the most exciting series in the history of boxing.
Among outside the ring honors, Marquez was named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fight of the Year: 2007; 2008
• BWAA Fight of the Year: 2008
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 2007; 2008
Marquez started his career the hard way, turning professional against a Rabanales only two years removed from the WBC Bantamweight title. As a plus, Marquez lasted into the eighth round but his knockout beginning was a rough start. Marquez moved back towards more standard progressions after Rabanales, stumbling in knockout losses against the little known Francisco Mateos in 1998 and future multiple-time title challenger Genaro Garcia in 2000.
Marquez wouldn’t lose again for almost seven years. Four straight knockout wins after Garcia led to a bout with former 112 and 115 lb. champion Mark Johnson in October 2001. Johnson, inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012, entered the bout at 40-1 and hadn’t lost since his second pro fight in 1990. In a riveting lost classic that saw both men endure damage, a couple of debatable point deductions aided Marquez towards a split decision victory.
It also set the stage for a rematch.
Johnson, boxing well early, built an early lead but in a case of two primes passing each other at different trajectories, was caught with some big shots. Marquez stopped Johnson for the first time in his career and put himself in line for a title shot against Austin. Johnson went on to hand Fernando Montiel his first defeat for a title at 115 lbs. before a final decline.
Austin, a Flyweight Bronze Medalist on the same Olympic team as Vernon Forrest, Chris Byrd, and Oscar De La Hoya, entered his bout with Marquez at 25-0-1 with nine successful title defenses.
Marquez’s seven title defenses at Bantamweight came against a varied level of opposition. Pete Frissina was dubiously qualified; Ricardo Vargas was more of a journeyman. Heriberto Ruiz was a solid veteran who had never been stopped in 35 fights. Marquez did the trick in three. Former 108 lb. titlist Mauricio Pastrana got two shots at Marquez. He lasted the distance in his first crack. Marquez became the first man to stop him in their rematch.
His toughest challenger would be the game Silence Mabuza, 18-0 going into their first fight in 2005. Marquez would stop Mabuza twice, first in four and then nine, to end his Bantamweight run.
Above Bantamweight, there were four straight fights with Vazquez, the first three for the 122 lb. championship. Marquez would go 2-2, scoring two stoppages and being stopped once. Vazquez came into their series riding a nine-fight win streak that included victories over Oscar Larios and Jhonny Gonzalez. Marquez would then move up in weight again, unsuccessfully challenging a then-undefeated Juan Manuel Lopez in November 2010 for the WBO Featherweight belt.
Two fights later, in October 2011, Marquez would return to 122 and challenge Japan’s Toshiaki Nishioka for the WBC honors. Nishioka won a decision in what would be Marquez’s final title shot (to date). Marquez faced well-faded former Bantamweight titlist Eric Aiken and scored a knockout in the first round before consecutive knockout losses to former unified 115 lb. titlist Cristian Mijares and the loss to Esquivias a few weeks ago.
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is simply concerned with relevant fights that didn’t happen. The why is not important.
The division where Marquez spent the longest part of his career and the class where he had his longest title reign was Bantamweight. He did not engage in any unification matches during that tenure. The following are the men who held major sanctioning body titles concurrent to Marquez:
• Veraphol Sahaprom (WBC, 12/29/1998-04/16/2005)
• Hozumi Hasegawa (WBC, 04/16/2005-04/30/2010)
• Johnny Bredahl (WBA, 04/19/2002-10/11/2004, retired)
• Wladimir Sidorenko (WBA, 02/26/2005-05/31/2008)
• Cruz Carbajal (WBO, 03/15/2002-05/07/2004)
• Ratanachai Sor Vorapin (WBO, 05/07/2004-10/29/2005)
• Jhonny Gonzalez (WBO, 10/29/2005-08/11-2007)
Of these men, three stand out as foes that could have seriously enhanced the reign of Marquez. Sahaprom, of Thailand, held the WBC belt through 14 defenses and beat a number of quality contenders along the way. A fight between the two would have pitted the two clear best fighters in the division. Hasegawa defeated Sahaprom for his belt and the quick fisted Japanese tactician went on to his own lengthy reign.
Gonzalez emerged as a titlist during the second half of Marquez’s and a fight between the two might be, in terms of sheer action, the biggest miss of all. Both men could punch like crazy and were vulnerable to power in return. Gonzalez continues on as a titlist at Featherweight at this writing.
Once he moved up in weight, it’s hard to find misses of note. There were other titlists at 122 lbs. during the Vazquez-Marquez rivalry, but when Marquez moved up Vazquez was clearly the best in class. Celestino Caballero held a WBA title and was next best after Vazquez. Had there been a lull with Vazquez, he could have added to Marquez’s ledger.
There was no lull. Their three wars were exactly where Marquez belonged, and losing the title in his first defense (their second fight) didn’t leave room for misses anyways. After those battles, Marquez evened the score with Vazquez at Featherweight before taking cracks at the then-consensus choices for best at Featherweight (Lopez) and Jr. Featherweight (Nishioka).
Those were both losses, late in his career, where his sheer competitiveness enhanced him for the attempt. He spent too little of his career at Featherweight to consider misses in that domain.
Reaction to Adversity
Marquez was a fighter whose career was always peppered with adversity because he was a fighter who could be hurt. After the Garcia loss, his punch resistance seemed to improve with the refinement of his skills. Once he started weathering storms, fight followers were treated to the man’s tremendous depth.
The first Johnson fight was an explosive coming out of a fighter headed to his prime. Both men were hurt in that war but Marquez would not fall. The survival and win in that fight seemed to give him additional confidence, confidence he took into the victorious rematch and the Austin fight. Again, against Austin, he worked through being hurt to come on bigger than the man in front of him.
Then of course there are the Vazquez wars. He came off the floor to win the first and refused to go easy in the rematch. Their third fight, one of the greatest fights of its generation, saw both men take the lessons of their first two battles and create a war that lasted the distance. Marquez was dropped in the final round after having Vazquez down early; both men dug deep to stave off the brink multiple times that night.
Marquez’s reaction to adversity was simple: endure and keep fighting. Even in his last two fights, stoppage losses to Mijares and Esquivias, it took tremendous efforts to get rid of the shadow of Marquez. His fighting heart and pride were impeccable. His chin could be dented but that only made it all the more admirable.
What’s Left to Prove
Following the Esquivias loss, the only thing Marquez has to prove is whether or not he really knows when to quit. It’s hard for any fighter, but especially a true gladiator, to walk away from the arena. It would be no fun to see him return again only to be bested by a younger man who couldn’t lace his boots in his prime.
Measured Against History
Taking in the total picture of Marquez’s career, the central question is raised again: how good is Marquez, measured against all time? It’s not an easy question to answer.
There is of course the notable familial tie. So far, this career retrospective has eschewed mention of Rafael’s older brother, Juan Manuel. Juan Manuel Marquez won belts at Featherweight, Jr. Featherweight, and Jr. Welterweight and was the lineal Lightweight Champion. Certainly one brother’s accomplishments don’t have anything to do with the other, but they magnify each other. They occupy a unique space as one of the great sibling pairs the sport has ever seen.
The easiest place to rate Rafael Marquez is at Bantamweight. To be sure, he was very good in the class. At his best, he bordered on great. What he lacked, at his peak, was simply more: more quality opponents, more quality wins. Mabuza was a solid challenger but he stands out as the best of the lot. It leaves a little to be desired.
Unification with Sahaprom, Hasegawa, or Gonzalez would have done much to further his place amongst the division’s immortals. Unfortunately, no Bantamweights secured unification bouts from 1973, when unified champion Enrique Pinder was stripped of the WBC belt, until Fernando Montiel (WBO) defeated Hozumi Hasegawa in 2010. Carlos Zarate (WBC) came closest in winning a non-title showdown with Alfonso Zamora (WBA) in 1977.
Even with unification, Marquez wasn’t likely to do anything to surpass Ruben Olivares, Eder Jofre, or Zarate, nor the best names of the deep 1920s featuring the great Pete Herman, Joe Lynch, and Bud Taylor. Terry McGovern remains revered a century after his prime and the long reign of “Panama” Al Brown through the first half of the thirties remains remarkable.
There is room for greatness beneath those titans. With something closer to a clean out of the class, Marquez might have made a case for himself ahead of an Orlando Canizales (16 title defenses) or Jeff Chandler (9 defenses, defeated three Bantamweight champions). With wins over Austin and Johnson, he’s not for off them by any stretch.
Even without unification, his three big wins in getting to and attaining a title at 118 cannot be overlooked. Johnson, at 40-1 and coming back from a relatively brief period of incarceration, entered off two comeback wins. Marquez was the first man to really beat him, Johnson’s only previous defeat having coming in a beginner’s four rounder. Johnson may not have been at his Flyweight best, but he was still a sensational fighter. Marquez took the best he had in both their fights.
Austin was also an exceptional talent. While he didn’t go on to do much after the Marquez loss, he had been a strong champion and was still very much in his prime. At 10-0 in title fights, 8 of those wins by knockout, Austin was the fairly favored man in their encounter. As was the case with Johnson, Marquez took the best he had and won.
It was as good a pair of scalps as almost anyone, in any division, picked up in the first half of the 2000’s. Using his brother as a point of comparison, it took Marquez until well into his 30s to match those official wins. They are more than enough, along with his solid title reign, to override early setbacks within the division.
Then there is what he did after Bantamweight. He bettered Canizales in winning a title at 122. How much is that title, and what followed, worth?
Is one rivalry with a genuine bad ass like Vazquez enough to push Marquez over the top towards Canastota?
In a word, yes. The first three fights of their four fight series were probably the finest three fight series of the 2000s. It was a rare series of bouts where each successive fight was better than the last.
Almost all great trilogies have a lesser chapter. Theirs did not.
They went from great fight, to greater fight, to arguably the greatest 122 lb. fight ever waged in a division that has seen classics like Wilfredo Gomez-Lupe Pintor and Erik Morales-Marco Antonio Barrera I among other enduring examples of unrepentant savagery.
Marquez and Vazquez saved their lesser chapter for a fourth-fight epilogue after the title was behind them both. Adding even more luster to their blood feud, each of their first three contests were for the legitimate championship of the division when they were seen as clearly the two best fighters at 122 lbs. They defined their division, and each other, from March 2007 to March 2008.
That Marquez had enough left to be highly competitive in a 2010 loss to Lopez was noteworthy. Men in lower weight classes often struggle for the longevity. From the first Johnson fight to the Lopez fight, a period of some nine years, Marquez belonged with the best in the world.
It doesn’t erase his flaws. The knockout losses that peppered his career point to the Achilles heel that separated Marquez from the upper pantheon, but one can prove great without necessarily rating among the rarified air of the All-Time Greats. Boxing isn’t just about perfection. It’s also about memories, the visceral reactions the audience is left with.
Johnson, Austin, and the Vazquez series accomplished that. Titles in two weight classes, a solid reign at Bantamweight where many considered him the best in class, and some genuine staying power, made for a great career in total.
Marquez fought with passion, with fire, and he gave fans everything he had and more than they could ask for. Depending on who shares the ballot with him when he becomes eligible, Marquez may or may not be an immediate entrant to the Hall of Fame. Regardless, if and when he gets in, he will have earned it.
Verdict on Rafael Marquez: Not An All-Time Great but Worthy of Hall of Fame Consideration
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series that examines the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org